What happened? The problem was not that the U.S. ran out of oil and gas, good farmland, minerals, or timber. We still have ideas and the Constitution. We were not wiped out by disease. Nor did we lost the scientific expertise of our predecessors through a new Dark Age. America was not invaded by Vandals and Goths, who ignored the upkeep of aqueducts and plundered civic buildings. Nor did we reach the end of history, with nothing to do anymore. Our roadways are still not all that safe or all that clean. Our factories are not running at full capacity.
So what is turning us into a social pyramid, with an elite pointed capstone and a broad foundation of poor, as the middle in-between narrows toward the top? You know the usual tune: postindustrial economies value new Eloi expertise, not Morlock brawn. Globalization outsourced jobs. Expectations grew even faster than reality, etc.
Maybe, maybe not.
The Attic Trap Door
I think three other reasons explain the present anomaly of our bread-and-circuses culture. First is the attic-door philosophy of the cultural elite. Once our urban elite became so wealthy and exempt from the conditions of acquiring their wealth (inheritance, dot.com start-ups, and Wall Street megaprofits can all do that quite suddenly), they began to dream of utopia, one to be imposed on the less fortunate and perhaps less deserving.
Once you have a home in Carmel with a granite counter, you do not like to see or hear the dirty mining of granite. A redwood deck is nice; but not the cutting of redwood.
If your power bill is $500 a month, that is a fraction of your weekly income, and so a small sacrifice to pay for the far more valuable assurance that you sleep soundly at night, content with the knowledge that you are not part of liquid fracking in the barren hills, or horizontal drilling under the beloved Pacific.
If the grubby poor do not appreciate the sight of whales off the coast frolicking on a Sunday afternoon, then why worry whether they have a job drilling? In short, the mere reassurance that a distant spotted newt is meandering in a Sierra stream is a far more ennobling thought than knowing that a Deliverance-like logger has a job cutting a tree down. The former is natural, cuddly, innocuous, silent, native, a symptom of a clean, healthy planet; the latter is gross, loud, disruptive, and an interloper, and proof of fallen man.
If your house is nice and in pleasant circumstances, why worry whether thousands of out-of-work Californians might wish to rush to the hills to salvage a billion-board feet of burned timber? For what purpose? To build ugly affordable condos on the 280-corridor for the Kia-driving class that does not recycle? To offer “jobs” so that loggers can play video games at night?
All our regulations, prohibitions, and caveats about developing the world about us have ensured that the world about us is too expensive for most of us. In California, a million loggers, frackers, horizontal drillers, miners, and farmers are not on the Montecito or San Rafael agenda. 101 is crowded enough without another 100,000 new SUVs racing about between Wal-Mart and Costco.
The growth of the federal government also has ensured two, not three, classes. The huge expansion in entitlements not only discourages incentives to labor (will one work two jobs to buy a house and get braces for his kids’ teeth, or stay home and reduce his [reported] income to qualify for free food assistance, housing credits, legal and educational aid, health care, and disability insurance?), but also discourages those who still work.
The government has either directly handcuffed the individual or created laws that force the private sector to handcuff him. In the last few weeks, in addition to the normal property and irrigation tax bills (always up, never static, much less declining), I have received the following: a request to fill out a federal ag survey, a notice about a new federal ag regulation, a ballot to vote for candidates on a public board, a water-user fee to shield me from lawsuits about collective water quality, a government inventory request on things on the farm, a notice about changes to my health insurance, a bill to pay fire insurance to a state-wide agency that replicates my current fire-protection taxes to local districts, and a broad increase in the cost of my liability insurance.
The problem is not just that we pay for those to think up these regulations, or that these regulations hamper commerce; but also that we despair at the myriad of useless forms and busy work of the otherwise idle bureaucracy. Psychologically, we reach a state where inaction is preferable to audacity: we join the body snatchers.